In October 1888 Ambrose Bierce published a short story, “Charles Ashmore’s Trail,” in the San Francisco Examiner. Bierce’s tale concerned a sixteen year old boy from Troy, New York who left home one snowy evening in 1878 to retrieve water from a well. What should have been a routine errand turned into a baffling dilemma for poor Charles’ family:
“This was the matter: the trail of the young man had abruptly ended, and all beyond was smooth, unbroken snow. The last footprints were as conspicuous as any in the line; the very nail-marks were distinctly visible. Mr. Ashmore looked upward, shading his eyes with his hat held between them and the lantern. The stars were shining; there was not a cloud in the sky; he was denied the explanation which had suggested itself, doubtful as it would have been — a new snowfall with a limit so plainly defined. Taking a wide circuit round the ultimate tracks, so as to leave them undisturbed for further examination, the man proceeded to the spring, the girl following, weak and terrified. Neither had spoken a word of what both had observed. The spring was covered with ice, hours old.
“Returning to the house they noted the appearance of the snow on both sides of the trail its entire length. No tracks led away from it.
It was a fairly typical, if exceptionally short (just 653 words) example of Bierce’s style, exploring the thin line between the ordinary and the occult (as exemplified by his best-known story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” with its narrative of a hanged man hovering between life and death). Bierce’s eventful life, from his Civil War service to his career as a Hearst journalist on the frontier and disappearance in Revolutionary Mexico a half-century later, adds a macabre personal resonance to the story. But “Trail” is most remarkable for inspiring numerous acts of plagiarism, a series of hallucinatory “true stories” that themselves blur the line between fact and fantasy.
In January 1906, a periodical called The Scrap Book carried a long column about mysterious disappearances. One such story, headlined “Vanished from Space,” relates the tale of one Oliver Morton Lerch who left the Earth in a way Bierce would have recognized. On Christmas Eve 1889, the twenty year old Oliver enjoyed a holiday feast at the family farmhouse near South Bend, Indiana. He went out to fetch some water from the well. Friends and family sang Christmas carols and chatted about the holiday. “Though snow had been falling heavily during the evening,” the unnamed author purplishly penned, “the sky was now cloudless and a full moon made the night almost as clear as day.”
Within a matter of minutes, the assembled guests (including a “Chicago lawyer” and a local priest) heard Oliver crying out for help. They rushed outside in a panic, only to find Oliver was nowhere to be seen. Stranger still, the cries “came from a spot directly over his head and apparently about a hundred feet in the air.” When Oliver’s father called out to his son, a faint voice responded “It’s got me!” Scouring the ground offered no explanation of what happened; a set of footprints leading towards the well was suddenly interrupted, as if Oliver had been grabbed and spirited away by a flying beast or otherworldly force…
For over an hour, the Lerchs and their guests chased the sound of Oliver’s screams, still audible but increasingly distant and feeble. “The cries were those of a person who was being carried further and further away,” the author insists, “not of one who was growing weaker.” Scouring the clear Christmas sky turned up no sign of Oliver Lerch, nor did sweeping the ground turn up anything beyond those footprints and a dramatically dropped water bucket. After hours of searching, the party was forced to abandon the search. “Nothing more was ever known of Oliver Lerch,” the column solemnly concludes, before the magazine moves on to a history of gas lanterns.
This story was syndicated in newspapers across the country (the present writer first discovered it in the Honolulu Star Advertiser of November 4, 1906 before tracing the original source), offering readers a bizarre, chilling tale to chew over breakfast. Anyone who’s spent time researching historical newspapers recognizes the difficulty with Oliver’s story; newspapers often ran such unverified, uncited stories between pages of advertisements and accounts of local comings-and-goings. It wasn’t meant to be believed, so much as to fill column inches. Perhaps contemporary readers recognized the tale as a poor imitation of Ambrose Bierce, and considered it roughly as factual.
Even The Scrap Book‘s story was plagiarism of a pastiche. Paranormal writers Theo Paijmans and Chris Aubeck traced it to the Christmas 1904 edition of the New York Sunday Telegraph. That day Irving Lewis, the paper’s entertainment editor, published “The Man Who Disappeared.” The article tells substantially the same story, with a few details (Oliver was related to Oliver Morton, Indiana’s Civil War governor) sprinkled in, along with a list of prominent citizens who witnessed the incident. Clearly, Lewis took Bierce’s work, added a Christmas twist and published it as a holiday gift to his readers (perhaps relocating it to distant Indiana for the benefit of New Yorkers). Whether the Scrap Book‘s anonymous author was Lewis himself, or merely an idle plagiarist, is harder to determine, though it’s likely their version reached a much wider audience.
Syndication of the Scrap Book account ensured that Oliver never vanished from public consciousness; he periodically appeared in newspapers and radio programs over the years, treated as an amusing Believe It Or Not yarn. It caught the attention of a millionaire in New Zealand who, in 1914, offered a reward for anyone with information about Oliver’s fate (a reward which was, needless to say, never claimed). Harold T. Wilkins, an early Fortean writer, contacted the South Bend Tribune about the story in 1932. Editor Rudolf Horst responded by asserting that Oliver Lerch was “purely imaginary,” adding that “we frequently hear of this supposed incident regarding the Lerch family, but have never been able to locate such a family.” Which did not stop Wilkins from including Oliver in several articles and books.
After decades as a dimly-recalled oddity, Oliver’s legend took on new life in 1950, amidst the postwar UFO craze. In that year, writer Joseph Raspenberger wrote about Oliver in Fate Magazine. Raspenberger recreated The Scrap Book‘s version of Irving Lewis’s story without attributing either, introducing another long-ago tale into the paranormalist’s portfolio. No longer a half-believed fable, the incident became a True Mystery…or so Fate claimed. Later in life, Raspenberger told Joe Nickell that his article was “fiction for a buck,” though he neglected to mention where and from whom he had borrowed it.
Nonetheless, Oliver Lerch caught the attention of ufologist Morris K. Jessup, who rarely met a mystery he didn’t believe. Extraterrestrials likely wouldn’t have occurred to earlier writers; aside from occasional airship sightings and science fiction by H.G. Wells, UFOs weren’t on anyone’s radar in 1906. Nor did earlier accounts mention strange lights, mysterious beings or other telltale signs of alien visitation. But Jessup treated Oliver’s vanishing as concrete evidence of alien visitors in The Case for the UFO (1955), which spread it to a wider audience than Fate‘s confirmed alien buffs. Jessup retells the Lerch caper with vivid, novelistic detail far exceeding Bierce’s sparse prose, adding mendacious “facts” to simulate his credibility.
Jessup reimagines Oliver’s father, named Bradley in Irving Lewis’s tale, as Tom, “a stern father who demanded absolute obedience from his two sons.” Oliver also gained from Jessup an older brother, Jim, and a sweetheart, one Lillian Hirsch, daughter of the previously unnamed “Chicago attorney.” The story is further embellished with details of Oliver and Lillian trading flirtatious banter and singing love duets at the family piano, providing a joyful atmosphere that belies Jessup’s descriptions of a repressive household. “Nothing foretold of the grim tragedy to come,” Jessup asserts, before relating the disappearance much as Scrap Book, Lewis and Raspenberger had done.
Well, almost. Because Jessup adds bizarre details: the trail of footprints became a curiously precise 225 feet long (roughly the 75 yards from Bierce), and he claims that Oliver had been carrying two water buckets, not one…but only one could be found, adding a superfluous mystery within a mystery. He also changes the year from 1889 to 1890. Boldly, Jessup insists that “the facts of the case are clearly written down for everyone to see in the police records of South Bend, Indiana and have been attested to by levelheaded persons.” Presumably such levelheaded persons include Jessup’s informant Carl Allen, who annotated this passage with typically cryptic advice that Oliver uttered “first its when attractor hit him & upon sight of L-M on receiving Port, said They.”
Jessup’s telling, in turn, passed to broadcaster and writer Frank Edwards. A popular radio personality, Edwards veered from sober discussions of news, politics and labor issues to UFOs and paranormal phenomena, an obsession which ultimately cost Edwards his job (though some blame his criticisms of labor organizer George Meaney). Edwards, also an occasional Fate contributor, borrowed Raspenberger’s narrative for his 1956 book Strangest of All and added his own flourishes to it. Edwards’ variations are so inconsequential that one wonders why he made them, except perhaps to disguise their origin from Raspenberger’s earlier, identical column.
For one, Oliver’s name changes from Lerch to Larch. More substantially, he loses nine years from Raspenberger and Jessup’s accounts. No longer a strapping, lovesick 20 year old, Oliver becomes an 11 year old boy, now a helpless victim of rapacious spacemen. Edwards alters as well such tidbits as the trail of footprints being 75 feet instead of yards, and claiming police suspected that little Oliver had been kidnapped by an air balloon, only to find there were no balloons in South Bend that evening. Unlike Jessup, Edwards refrains from speculating on who (or what) actually took Oliver, remarking only that “he vanished as completely as if he had literally walked off the earth.”
Unaccountably, the story received another variation a decade later in Brad Steiger’s Strangers from the Sky (1966). By this time, the experience of Betty and Barney Hill introduced the public to the concept of “alien abductions,” where humans were kidnapped by aliens for observation, medical experimentation or other nefarious ends. Steiger wrote of Oliver Thomas, a young Welsh boy who was taken in 1909, a decade after Oliver Lerch’s supposed disappearance. Aside from a new setting and some equally spurious details (like the police scouring the well with “grappling hooks,” which evidently hadn’t occurred to their American counterparts) it’s exactly the same. After the book’s publication, Steiger learned that he’d been bamboozled by a fellow ufologist and spent his later years debunking the story, to no avail.
All three Olivers bounced around paranormal books and articles for decades, sometimes repeated alongside each other as if they were distinct incidents. Paul Begg correctly suggested that these “must be duplicate accounts of the same story” but puzzled over “which if any is the original.” Another writer claimed that the snow showed a second set of footprints, presumably alien, next to Oliver’s; someone else relocated the disappearance to Indiana County, Pennsylvania. One skeptic in the 1960s even contrived an elaborate “logical” explanation – that Oliver fell through thin ice, his cries muffled by the water as he slowly drowned or froze to death. More plausible than aliens, but still paying Oliver an undue complement by assuming he existed.
An even weirder variation conflated the Olivers Three with the Arizona Thunderbird, a massive raptor supposedly shot and photographed by a posse of cowboys outside Tombstone in 1890. Writer Jack Pearl claims that the bird carried off a prospector who shouted “It’s got me!” exactly as Oliver had before, presumably, becoming the raptor’s prey. Strangely, Jessup, Edwards and the rest reject the Thunderbird hypothesis in their own accounts…clearly, phantom balloons and alien invaders are more exciting.
Skeptics found Oliver’s misadventure easy to debunk. Joe Nickell, the scourge of paranormal storytellers everywhere, called Jessup’s bluff by checking South Bend records for evidence of Oliver or his disappearance. While their police files did not predate 1920 (having been destroyed in a fire), there were copious newspaper, legal documents and government records. Neither Lerch nor Larch could be found therein, let alone such a bizarre incident which surely would have commanded at least local attention. The similarities to Bierce were so obvious that it’s hard to believe anyone could be snookered by it…except that Bierce’s fame had receded enough by 1950 that UFO enthusiasts couldn’t recognize the hoax.
The flurry of attention Edwards and Jessup generated inspired Indiana journalists to investigate. Francis K. Czyzewski, a longtime reporter for the South Bend Tribune, spent much of the 1960s searching for Oliver. “Not a single paragraph about the disappearance of Oliver Lerch was printed anywhere,” Czyzewski concluded. “Not even an inkling of a story that could have shaken the nation…Police records dating back to 1890 were then said to be non-existent.” Besides uncovering Rudolf Horst’s thoughts on the subject, he discovered that local weather on the night in question was unseasonably warm, not blown by a picturesque snowstorm, while the other partygoers so boldly named in Case for the UFO were the products of Jessup’s imagination.
Meanwhile, Czyzewksi’s colleague Sarah Lockerbie discovered that there was an Oliver Lerch currently living in South Bend in the early ’60s. This Oliver, however, was the son of one Sherman Lerch, who had been born in 1888 in Pennsylvania, a year before Oliver’s supposed space snatch. Sherman insisted that the disappearance was nonsense, or at least that any vanishing Oliver was no kin of his. Nonetheless, Sherman and his wife received dozens of letters from paranormal researchers inquiring about the incident. Faced with the Lerch’s denial, some ufologists darkly hinted that these mild-mannered Hoosiers were part of a conspiracy to hide “the truth.”
The most telling aspect is the gradual accumulation of melodramatic detail, absent from Bierce’s terse original. Charles relocated from rural New York to the conservative Midwest to seem more grounded (then later to Wales, for an international dimension); writers invented authoritative witnesses (a lawyer, judge and priest) to vouchsafe credibility. The event’s moved from November to Christmas for an easy juxtaposition of holiday cheer and paranormal tragedy; he cries out for help, adding a pitiful note of melodrama. Charles Ashmore, an ordinary sixteen year old in Bierce’s story, becomes first a young man snatched from his lady love, then a helpless child stolen from his family. And for some reason, while his age and surname regularly changed, he remained stubbornly Oliver.
Oliver’s wasn’t even the only strange “disappearance” inspired by Bierce. In 1880, it’s claimed, a Tennessee farmer named David Lang disappeared while crossing a field, in full view of his wife and other witnesses. This tale first surfaced in the 1930s from Lang’s alleged daughter before being publicized, inevitably, in Fate Magazine in 1953 complete with falsified legal documents. Lang found a second life in paranormal circles (Frank Edwards, unsurprisingly, discussed it in several of his books) until writers for the Fortean Times discovered that Lang’s tale imitated another Ambrose Bierce story, “Difficulty of Crossing a Field.” Incredibly, the earliest telling even claims that Bierce based his tale off of Lang’s “true” story!
In contrast, it’s hard to classify Oliver’s story as a “hoax,” in the sense of being deliberately faked. Bierce’s original was obvious fiction, and never pretended to be anything else. Quite probably Lewis intended his story as little more than homage or pastiche of Bierce; that he published a spooky Christmas saga on Christmas suggests that he considered Oliver Lerch as real as Ebeneezer Scrooge. But Raspenberger, Jessup and Edwards cannot be afforded such leeway; one was an admitted phony, the second a documented fantasist, the third merely credulous. Through their efforts Oliver Lerch gained immortality, his disappearance so evocative and tellingly spooky that even today, it survives skeptical rigor.
Mysterious disappearances are real enough, and more unnerving in their way than standard murders as they deny closure or a sense of understanding. We find the stories of Amelia Earhart, D.B. Cooper and Bierce himself fascinating, precisely because no definitive explanation for their fate exists. It’s natural for writers to revisit these tales, even as they become encrusted with myth, half-truths and tall-tales. Harder to condone when writers begin mining fictional works for inspiration, and pass them off as truth.
Note: Most of this article comes from Anomaly Info‘s exhaustive raking over of this myth and its variations, along with the Fortean Times article “Nightmare Before Christmas” (Winter 2015; online here), Jerome Clark’s Unexplained! (2012 edition) and two articles by ufologist Kevin Randle linked above, along with my own research into The Scrap Book. Joe Nickell’s research is included in his Secrets of the Supernatural (1988, with John F. Fischer).